Studying the biological continuum
A 3D computer model of a protein
Professor Richard Kitney, Professor Paul Freemont, Dr John Hassard and Professor Yike Guo.
Imperial College London.
With the increasing power of computers, the ability of the information communication technology (ICT) infrastructure to transfer and store vast amounts of information and the rapid development of basic medical science, in particular molecular biology, it is now becoming possible to view the human body, from the smallest bio-active molecule through cells and membranes to organs and limbs, as a biological continuum. This could have a dramatic impact on the future of healthcare and the development of new treatments and services.
This ability to view structure and function at various levels of organisation in the body helps us to better relate molecular mechanisms to macroscopic physiological effects. The human biological continuum includes physiological systems, organs, tissues, cells, genetic material and proteins. 'The traditional approach to studying the mechanisms in the human body has been to study each level of activity more or less in isolation', says Richard Kitney. 'Now the results of research from various levels of the continuum can be accommodated together in an overarching web-based computer system that comprises both visualisation and modelling: the biological continuum.'
This brings together both 'top-down' and 'bottom-up' approaches to human biology. It has been enabled by the huge expansion in modern imaging techniques, such as the magnetic resonance (MR) scanner, and advances in computing techniques that allow information from various sources to be brought together over common interfaces.
Non-invasive imaging that allows detailed examination of the human body over all scales includes techniques like atomic force microscopy (AFM) at the nanometre scale and MR images that cover features in the range 1 millimetre to 1 metre. Cryogenic electron microscopy can reveal detail at the micrometre level by imaging the internal workings of cells, taking tiny 60 nanometre slices to build up a view of individual cell components: literally frozen in time. Techniques such as AFM can tell us how proteins fold on an atomic scale and how that is related to their activity.